Tale of a Tam Lin: Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer’s Child Ballads

My Glaswegian, being the splendid fellow he is, recently surprised me with tickets to see Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer open for Karine Polwart at Celtic Connections, a winter music festival in Glasgow. I absolutely fell in love with Mitchell’s Hadestown, a folk opera retelling the story of Orpheus and Eurydice as set in an American Depression-style  setting, with Hades as boss of a company town; in addition to reviewing it at gushy length for Black Gate, it has become so entwined with my family’s life that my sister and her then-fiancé chose to open their wedding ceremony with “The Wedding Song.”

All this to say that when I learned that Anaïs Mitchell would be interpreting some Child Ballads (with cover art done by the inimitable Peter Nevins, likewise of Hadestown–find a an interview with him here, courtesy of the fantastical CSE Cooney), I was eager to own the album. Getting to hear the songs live first, though, was incredible.

We were a bit late arriving, finding our seats after the close of “Riddles Wisely Expounded.” But no sooner were we seated than Anaïs began to introduce her version of “Tam Lin.”

A word about “Tam Lin”: I have somewhat accidentally become a collector of different versions of it. I say somewhat accidentally because I never set out to do this, and yet, before this evening, I had eleven: Fairport Convention, Alison McMorland & Geordie McIntyre, Anne Briggs, Coyote Run, Mediaeval Baebes, Pyewackett, Current 93, Steeleye Span, Tempest, Frankie Armstrong, and Tricky Pixie. They are all tremendously different from each other, and lately whenever I hear that someone has tackled the ballad I get excited in part because I know that here will be a new one to add to the collection.

So it was with delight that I turned to my Glaswegian, grinning my anticipation at him as Anaïs spoke her introduction.

“So, if any of you know this story, you’ll know that it’s basically lousy with fairies. There are lots and lots of fairies in it.”

I gave my Glaswegian an ecstatic two thumbs up. He smiled indulgently.

“…But there are no fairies in our version.”

My jaw dropped. My Glaswegian chortled.

“No, see, we’re American, and we just aren’t as down with the fairies thing, and we thought the story worked fine without them.”

I made this face: ಠ_ಠ

But then their guitars kicked in and they started singing and by gosh they worked it and it was amazing and I have been listening to the song on infinite repeat while composing this post. It’s mesmerizing, full of roses green and roses red, managing somehow to hold on to the magic while having banished the fairies, which is, as Messrs. Strange and Norrell will tell you, no easy feat.

It was definitely my favourite piece of an excellent performance, and having since acquired the album, it remains my favourite song on it, though they’re all excellent. Mitchell and Hamer’s voices blend beautifully. I’d never heard “Sir Patrick Spence” before, and the tune sounds remarkably close to the version of “McAlpine’s Crew” I have, by Catherine Crowe. But even if I hadn’t loved the songs I’d have picked up the album for the art alone, especially as I’ve since discovered that there’s a stunning, eminently frame-able insert illustrating six of the songs on the album (with the cover art being the seventh–scroll to the right to see them all). The hard part will be choosing which side-of-three to display, but since they’re also going to make prints of each image, I can at least wait a while until I have to make any decisions.

Which, as it happens, is precisely the kind of respite that this version of “Tam Lin” allows me, as I can’t really imagine listening to anything else for a while.

(Karine Polwart was, of course, as ever, utterly brilliant, funny, and charming. Traces is a wonderful album and I highly recommend it too.)

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